State Rep. Steve Drazkowski is one of 18 plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Thursday that claims employees from Wabasha and Winona counties, the city of Winona and nearly 50 other counties and cities illegally accessed personal information hundreds of times.
The lawsuit claims that an unknown number of state employees used the state’s driver’s license database more than 600 times since April 2003 to look up their records, which include photos, Social Security numbers, addresses, weight, height and other private information.
The 18 plaintiffs, a majority of whom are from Wabasha County, say they were targeted because of political reasons, such as for writing a letter to a newspaper, running for election, supporting a campaign or pushing for government reform.
“My clients do something (political),” said attorney Erick Kaardal, who represents the clients. “Police identify them and then run a check.”
County sheriffs and other representatives from area law enforcement agencies countered Thursday that they know of no misuse among their employees, and that there are legitimate reasons that someone’s records may be accessed multiple times, particularly if someone has a common first and last name.
The suit seeks least $1 million in damages, noting that the law allows for at least $2,500 in damages for each use of the database without a legitimate reason, as well as any additional damages a court finds appropriate.
Drazkowski said in an interview Thursday that the way the records were used leaves little room for interpretation. He counted 133 times his records were accessed, and in multiple occasions they were accessed almost at the same time as other family members’ information, he said.
“When I found out my wife and daughter were being targeted by these people, that became a problem,” Drazkowski said.
He said the suit came about after he and a few friends heard about similar lawsuits and decided to see how many times their records had been accessed.
“Our eyes became wide open,” he said.
Other plaintiffs include Wabasha County commissioners Deb Roschen and David Harms and former commissioner Merl Norman, who were sometimes referred to divisively by opponents as the “Wabasha Three” during a yearslong controversy in the county where they voted to abolish the administrator position.
Roschen said Thursday she was in shock as she looked at a list that contained more than 100 records of her information being accessed, as well as a list of times her husband and daughter’s information were viewed.
“It’s not like I’m a lawbreaker,” Roschen said. “I follow the rules; why can’t they?”
The vast majority of times the records were accessed were within Wabasha County, the lawsuit claims. Other municipalities only viewed them a handful of times. For example, Winona County tallied seven views, the and the cities of of Winona and Wabasha 18 times each.
Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsh said Thursday his staff has been trained on proper uses of the database at least twice in the last year and that he’s not aware of any misuse. He added that some officers no longer use the database out of fear of being sued.
“Officers are petrified to use it,” Bartsh said. “The (database) might as well go away because we’re not going to use it.”
Bartsh said there are several ways officers could use the database in a legitimate way that could later be questioned.
For example, if an officer stops someone who doesn’t have a driver’s license on them, the officer might use the database to search their name. If the person stopped shares a first and last name with other residents, an officer might view multiple entries until they find a photo that matches the person.
City of Winona Attorney Chris Hood declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit. He said he’s aware of no misuse among city employees, and cited a similar example to Bartsh’s as a reason for legitimate use that may be seem suspicious when taken out of context.
It’s not known which state employees accessed the information in any given city or county, and the lawsuit does not explicitly seek the discovery of their names. Any number of municipal departments have access to the database, including city and county law enforcement officers and dispatchers, staff in county attorneys’ offices and community corrections departments, and social services and vital records departments.
The state’s driver’s license database made news last year, when a Department of Natural Resources employee was accused of using it to access the records of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom were women.
A February 2013 report from the state legislative auditor’s office found numerous cases of abuse, including a case where 88 law enforcement employees misused the database, and some continued to after leaving their job.
The report found that more than half of law enforcement personnel who used what’s called the Driver and Vehicle Services database had searched information on people with their same last name, or searched primarily for either women or men during 2012.
“Law enforcement personnel have used their access to driver’s license data for nonwork purposes or work purposes that are not allowed by state law,” the report found.
The office’s report said monitoring, accountability, and training all need to be strengthened.